Slack as an ephemeral communication medium

Continuing the discussion from Bulk update of pedestrian crossings by LocalMapper:

This is true. Currently, such a scenario is only a hypothetical, but we don’t only have to be vigilant for something as formal as a change in the terms of use. Recently, Salesforce overhauled Slack’s user interface, and some people are struggling to adapt. (The default hot aubergine color scheme is not really my cup of tea.) I think we’ll eventually get used to Slack’s new user interface, but it is a wake-up call.

In a recent Slack thread, a concern was raised about the portability of all the discussions that have taken place on Slack. Fortunately, the same plan that gives OSMUS full searchability also allows the workspace’s administrators to export a full dump of all the message history. However, there’s no plan to publish this message history as a public archive. Here’s how I explained that stance (edited for intelligibility):

This is partly a privacy/safety issue: many people have joined this workspace over the years with an expectation that their writings would not be exposed publicly for Google and now ChatGPT to get ahold of. It would be problematic to backtrack on that understanding wholesale. At least we’d have to ask for everyone’s permission, which would be a logistical challenge. If worst comes to worst and we have to move off Slack, it might be feasible to archive the chat history and make it accessible to those who have joined this workspace but not the whole wide world, either on a successor platform or a custom website thingie.

Regarding the incongruence of an open data community gathering on a closed platform:

This workspace has an open door but still has walls. I think most people would be OK with most of their writing being available to the rest of the OSM community, but, like, do you remember what questions you asked and which jokes you tried to land when you first joined? I sure don’t. :sweat_smile:

But it doesn’t have to be this way forever:

Over time, I think it would be healthy to summarize some of the more substantive discussions (and maybe retell some of the more successful jokes) on the forum or wiki, so that we can all have the same attitude as some others have about this workspace’s ephermerality.

And, presciently:

“It happened on Slack/IRC” is not always a very convincing argument when defending a tagging decision with someone who isn’t on Slack/IRC.


And wearing my OSM US board member hat, I would oppose publishing such an archive for that basic reason.

Precisely. And the existence of that door, though open to anyone who chooses to walk through it, still acts as a filter for who chooses to step inside. Each communication space on the project – the free-as-in-speech ones, the free-as-in-beer ones, and the closed ones, all have a unique feel and culture based on the people, technology and circumstances of the space. A project like ours flourishes more when contributors have a variety of participation options that suit their philosophy and ideology.

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On that, does anybody know if discussions here are “visible” to Google / ChatGPT?

With my DWG hat on, it would be really handy if all discussions were available / visible in one place, so we don’t ask the question of “Why did you do this without talking about it first?”, but then get “Oh, but we talked about on Slack / Telegram / Mastodon / Discord / Facebook / etc, & all the members of our private group there thought it was a great idea!” :roll_eyes:

Slack, Telegram, Discord, IRC, and other chat methods are not a good way to do consultation with the community. By design, messages are somewhat ephemeral in nature, even if logged somewhere. Most users on the platform will not keep up with all messages when they were away, and expecting them to do so is misusing it.

A standard use of chat would be to ask a question, interact with others about the question until I have an answer, then disengage until I next chat. At this point, all I know is that I have an answer, not that the community has had a chance to comment. A community member who was away for a day can’t be expected to read all messages, particularly on a high-traffic server.

Threads, like Slack and Discord have, improve this slightly, but don’t change the underlying real-time nature of the platform.


Google does index this forum, though its coverage of the mailing lists has dramatically declined over the years, so I’d expect its coverage of the forum to be similarly scattershot.

Anyhow, this was a rhetorical device; the point is that many people, especially those on the periphery of this project, feel more comfortable in an environment sheltered from the prying eyes of social media and search engines. The culture of civility and empathy there exemplifies the best in OSM. But because of the login wall and fast-paced action, it’s better-suited to sharing advice, links, and funny photos than long-term technical decisionmaking.

If someone did get a big :+1::+1: from the community on Slack, they should be able to produce a link to the discussion. Best if they can provide that URL upfront in their changeset tags. Five DWG members are members of the workspace and can ensure that the mapper didn’t just ask ChatGPT to fabricate a Slack URL for them and that they didn’t post in #all-alone without getting a response. I recall an episode a year or two ago when someone on the talk-us list tried to pass off Slack as having already acquiesced to their import idea; they were quickly called out for it.

At the end of the day, someone making a major edit is responsible for doing due diligence and hearing out a range of perspectives in whichever venue can facilitate that dialogue. On a practical level, they would need to somehow involve the OSMUS Slack workspace, even if it’s just cross-posting a link to a forum or wiki discussion, because Slack dwarfs any of the other relevant communication channels (edited with stats from the summer doldrums):

But I want to emphasize that, even though the atmosphere is very different on Slack than the mailing lists or forums have historically been known for, we’re all part of the same project and our shared goals overlap much more than we give ourselves credit for. The sky didn’t fall when we recently started allowing import discussions to take place on the forum instead of the mailing lists. Nor did it fall several years earlier, when the majority of active talk-us participants invited themselves into what had been the OSMUS board’s private Slack workspace for day-to-day work, simply because it met the pent-up demand for real-time chat.

This forum did exist in some form back when the community reached a consensus with their feet that Slack was the better alternative. Times are changing, but I think we can work towards a more open recordkeeping practice without rushing to delegitimize the consensuses that we’ve achieved on purely procedural grounds.

& I’m one of them, but only ever go on there if I need to ask an US specific question.

Which was never my intention!

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This is part of the story, and I’ve made the same point myself, but I think it overlooks the fact that the Slack workspace has a lot of people from every part of the country who are actively trying to solve problems for each other.

Recently, I was commiserating with another mapper who, like me, frequents the OpenStreetMap Vietnam group on Facebook. A Facebook group’s form factor resembles that of a forum much more than a chat room. However, it’s very difficult to get a thoughtful response to a serious question there. The group includes some hard-core mappers, but if I ask a tagging question there, the best case would be a collective shrug; I’d just have to ATYL and hope for the best.

It’s no accident that Slack is marketed as enterprise business software. It may be chat, but people sign up there to be productive members of the OSM community. The best thing we can do is find ways to better integrate what happens there with the rest of the OSM experience. As far as I’m concerned, the login wall can stay up, but I think there are many mappers for whom Slack can be a steppingstone to the forum, wiki, and GitHub repositories.

well that’s a legit point. But can OSMUS at least ensure that they have an export of the data? Just in case the rug gets pulled and it’s too late (“oops no-one did an export before they turned off the export functionality, now 10+ years of OSM history are gone”). We’ve seen with Twitter and Maxar that things can change.


I haven’t been involved as much, but I will just add my opinion for a number of reasons it’s better to have the Discourse forums as an officially sanctioned communication platform. I think the reasons have been stated many times already so I won’t get into them too much (open platform is better than a closed source platform that we are “allowed to use” for free) I don’t visit the Slack very much anymore and in the few times I have posted things in my local Washington channel, I didn’t get much engagement.

Whether or not there is an export of the Slack, it’s just not clear what the benefit is to have it. I don’t think there is a reasonable expectation of privacy, but perhaps some people used private messages and would have the expectation those would not somehow become public. Exporting the data and keeping it around risks leaking that.

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Speaking only for myself and not the rest of the board: no, we are not doing that. The fact that chat is ephemeral is a feature, not a bug.

Slack is a real-time chat platform more akin to IRC, not a deep archive of the project. If it “goes away”, we would of course have to find a new service to use for real-time chat (of which there are many options), and I’m sure this would be very annoying. But even in that case, we would not import Slack history into some hypothetical successor.

While folks have found it useful to be able to deep link into Slack, nobody should assume that these are forever links. If you want permanent linkable content, use this Discourse server or the wiki.

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To be clear, I agree with this stance, and I have actively advised mappers to create a public paper trail when it comes to anything consequential. However, for the time being, I also defend mappers who cite Slack conversations as justification for their edits, because they are literally following the guidelines. If we reach a consensus that the guidelines are outdated, then we change the guidelines for decisions going forward, and recreate that paper trail to the extent possible. Unfortunately, every communication medium has an uneven track record when it comes to establishing consensus, even without the element of ephemerality.